Exploring The Emerging Survival Genre with The Long Dark’s Raphael van Lierop

The Long Dark, an upcoming survival game from Hinterland Studios, is making waves as one of the first titles to arrive on Microsoft’s Game Preview program. It is also one of the first pure survival games on console, separating the genre from its horror roots and taking its themes of minimalist resource management to their most logical conclusion. In this post-disaster scenario players hike through an unforgiving wilderness, at odds with a passive but destructive antagonist: the weather and landscape itself.

I caught up with creative director and founder of Hinterland Studios Raphael van Lierop at E3 this year to talk to him about the exciting new developments in the future of The Long Dark, including what the process has been like as they help usher in Microsoft’s new Early Access-like indie game preview program. We also pick apart some of the inspiration and themes within the game, discussing the appeal to apocalyptic narrative. Read on!

Holly: I grew up in the Pacific Northwest so the game is very real to me in the sense that it reminds me so much of growing up in the area, all the scenarios that run through your mind should your car end up in a ditch one day just trying to make it home. On your creative team for The Long Dark is there anyone who’s had that similar background and life experience? Does the game draw on the places you or they have lived or scenarios they themselves have gone through? This takes place in Canada, as does your studio, yes?

Raphael: Yes the studio is Canadian, we are on Northern Vancouver Island in a very small town that is surrounded by wilderness, so The Long Dark is sort of our backyard, in a way. Most of us, for example I moved from Vancouver, came from a bigger city, so I think moving there was part of the inspiration for the early part of the game. I spent a lot of time walking logging roads in the backwoods, and listening to the woods and that was some of the early brainstorming. I always knew that I wanted to make a survival game, and it felt that there weren’t any games out there that were true outdoor survival, it was always more about shooting zombies.

H: That’s what fascinates me about The Long Dark because I feel that survival is becoming its own genre. We have FPS, MMO, etc, but it feels like survival for pure survival’s sake is becoming a “thing”, free of the horror subtext, which is how it’s always paired. You have folks on your staff that have worked on The Elder Scrolls series, you can see a lot of that influence in the mechanics of the game. What would you say some of the other primary influences are for The Long Dark?

R: In terms of games, Fallout 3 was a big one. I put like 150 hours into that game. If you remember, when it first came out, there was a level cap of 30 and only in the DLC did they raise that. I maxed out really quickly, and so for the majority of my first 150 hours of the game, I was wandering through the world not earning any perks or experience. But was still really compelling to me. I felt like the thing that I loved so much about it was that exploration loop, seeing something interesting on the horizon and going there and looking for stuff there. Sometimes I felt the combat almost got in the way. It wasn’t the fun part to me. The exploration, that sense of being where you weren’t supposed to be, or finding something that was abandoned.

H: I really identify with that because for me a big part of Fallout 3 what made the game great was the theme of abandonment and decay…

R: Urban exploration!

H: Yes! I feel like Bethesda took another step towards enhancing that experience when Skyrim came along because of the improvements to their draw distance graphics, really ensuring that you could go anywhere on the horizon that you were inspired to see, and as a result, it’s yet another game I’ve poured hundreds of hours into.

R: Going back to what you were asking earlier, about our team, one of our members came to us after ten years at Bioware and working on Dragon Age and he’s a very hardcore hiker, so it has been great to have him on the project. He was initially drawn to The Long Dark because of the wilderness setting, and he’s been a great resource. I’ve done a lot of outdoorsy stuff but not on that scale, so I ping him all the time about how to make this experience more true to the feeling of being lost in or just traveling through the wilderness.

Returning to games, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. was a big one, in fact one of the most hardcore survival mode in the game is named Stalker Mode in tribute to the game. Then there’s novels, like The Road obviously. There’s another novel called The Dog Stars by Peter Heller which is a study on psychology of isolation, so those were pretty powerful influences on the early thinking that went into the game. 

In terms of survival being its own genre it’s been really interesting to work on The Long Dark in that our starting point was we wanted to create [an exploration game]. To me the most interesting part of Fallout 3 was exploration, so after playing it a lot I wondered if you could make a game that was only that, where combat was incidental and the environment is the challenge itself. So that’s where all the mechanics of the game emerged from, how to turn Mother Nature into a…not necessarily an adversary but sort of a neutral threat. She doesn’t care whether you live or die. 

H: One literary theme that I love is the indifference of nature to human suffering.

R: Yes! That’s exactly what this game is about.

H: Like, it ain’t out to get you but it ain’t out to help you either.

R: That is terrifying for people. I’m always amazed because people say, “Oh the game’s really spooky, it feels like a horror game,”. It’s not a horror game, it’s a vulnerability fantasy. The player realizes how weak we really are, and that’s what resonates with them. they like the fact that A. the game doesn’t hold their hand, B. it doesn’t pull any punches and C. their successes are *their* successes. We don’t give you anything, so if you survive five days or fifty days, it’s because *you* figured it out. I think what works well in this game is the sense that things never get too comfortable.

H: Yes I would agree. Having played the game in Early Access, I would say that just because you’ve survived five days in the game, that doesn’t mean you’ve got it all figured out and suddenly things start to get easier. Every single day is a struggle. 

R: Even every single hour. One of my favorite quotes about the game from one of our community members was along the lines of, most often what kills you in The Long Dark is yourself. At some point you made a decision that maybe didn’t have immediate ramifications but down the road, it did. You can almost draw a line back to that one place where you made a bad decision, like you got greedy and carried too much stuff in your pack and so you sprained your ankle and a wolf got you, or whatever. 

H: One thing that killed me many times in the game was coming to an actual fork in the paths I could take; often I was given the choice of going this way or that, and likely one of those paths would result in my death, but it’s gonna take a lot of energy and effort to explore that so I have to make that judgment call on which is more likely to result in food or shelter. I don’t have the luxury of checking both. The last time I played, was after one of the updates where you guys were trying to adjust the frequency of animal encounters, and so I found an abandoned power station and went inside, where I was very quickly mauled by a wolf. 

R: That wolf actually has its own name and Twitter account. It’s funny how Fluffy came about; back in the day we were only testing with our Kickstarter supporters, long before we came to Early Access with it. We had people exploring and when we first brought in the dam [to the game], people loved finding a built up urban-feeling space…but they got so comfortable in it. Too comfortable. I was like, “You should not feel comfortable here”, so we threw in the wolf almost as a joke, as a lark to mix things up a bit. I don’t think we ever thought we’d leave it in there, it was more of a “just because” kind of thing, and people ended up loving it. They thought it was awesome because they’d gotten so used to going into that space and looting it without any associated risk, and suddenly they have to contend with this chance he’ll spawn.

So our community named it Fluffy, and then that took off. Fluffy has his own Twitter account, and we left him in the game even though he surprises and kills people. And sometimes that’s frustrating for them but…

H: Eh, you gotta learn some time!

R: That’s right!